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Bone Wars, a review

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Palaeontologia Electronica
Andre, Brian, 2007. [Review of Bone Wars, Zygote Games]. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 10, Issue 1, R1; 4pp.1.6MB;
Bone Wars
Reviewed by Brian Andres
Zygote Games
Bone Wars ©2005
Zygote games, is a unique
game from any point of
view. Taxonomy card
games fall into three
broad categories. There
are the games played on
the standard 52 card playing decks, the massive
collecting card games (CCG’s for short), and the
card games that lie intermediate between the two
to which Bone Wars belongs. A 99 cent deck of
playing cards cannot be beat for value, but there
are only so many strategies can be employed for
any given game and play is pretty similar between
hands. At the other end of the spectrum are the
CCG’s that have an almost infinite number of strat-
egies as a result of their having literally hundreds
of cards and a system of rules that change over
time. However, the CCG’s are usually sold in packs
of about 10 cards requiring a considerable invest-
ment before you have a competitive deck, much
time must be put building your decks before play
can begin, and the rule books for these games
resemble small tomes in size and complexity. Con-
sidering this state of affairs, it would be expected
that there would be niche market of games that
could combine the strategy and game play of the
CCG’s without going overboard with the simplicity
and one time price of a standard deck of playing
cards. However, card games in this intermediate
category have traditionally been far off this mark so
that you would have more chance for strategy and
interesting game play from a hand of Old Maid.
Part of the problem is that many of these intermedi-
ate games are designed and marketed for younger
children, which is the case for “Extinction,” the only
other paleontological card game I know. Bone
Wars is unique in that it manages to walk the line
between the standard playing cards and the CCG’s
taking many of their best elements, and does so in
a smart manner that is enjoyable for both adults
and older children.
In Bone Wars, players portray one of four
paleontologists from the 19th century Bone Rush of
the American West (O.C. Marsh, Edward Cope,
Charles Sternberg, and Barnum Brown, see Figure
1) and compete for “Scientific Immortality” by col-
lecting Prestige Points. Each of these paleontolo-
Figure 1. Edward Drinker Cope Paleontologist Card.
ANDRES: Bone Wars
gists is represented by his own card that gives the
player a particular advantage such as drawing
extra cards or starting with more Prestige Points.
This among many other touches results in no two
games that are the same. Players accrue prestige
in one of three typical ways until they reach an
agreed upper limit and win the game. Prestige
comes from describing dinosaurs, revising your or
other players’ skeletons, and using certain Event
cards. A round of play consists of three phases:
Field Season, Museum Work, and Controversy.
During Field Season, players draw the Bone and
Event Cards they will use to build their skeletons in
Museum Work and revise them in Controversy.
The Bone Cards consist of 18 Dinosaur cards (see
Figure 2) in four groups represented by their color,
and a whole series of Bone cards representing the
Head, Vertebrae, and Limbs of the similarly color-
coded dinosaurs (See Figure 3). As long as you
have a two different Bones of a Dinosaur of the
same color, you can build a skeleton in your
“museum” and gain prestige. However, the Bone
cards have descriptions of their elements on them,
and in Controversy players can replace the bones
of other players’ Dinosaurs with Bones that more
closely match their descriptions thereby allowing
you to steal prestige from an opponent. The true
complexity of the game comes from the Event
cards (See Figure 4). Some Event cards can be
played at particular times, some prevent prestige
lost, some help some help to describe dinosaurs,
and a large portion just stymie your opponents.
The interaction between these cards and the rest
of the game is where the game play takes on some
of its most interesting aspects.
Much design has been put into the cards
themselves. The card art was created by Bryant P.
Johnson, author for the online comic Tea c h i ng
Baby Paranoia. The artwork has a slick appear-
ance with sharp tones and lines usually only found
in graphic art made by placing hundreds of shapes
together in Adobe Illustrator™. The muted tones
he uses for his strips have taken on the browns,
tans, and maroons of sepia tones and give the
game an antique appearance. Splashes of color
are uncommon and usually accentuate a certain
aspect of the art such as a match flame in Burn the
Evidence, the water in Flash Flood, or a feathered
reconstruction of a dinosaur in New Paradigm. The
last example is likely an inside joke by the creators
since it is the only anachronism present in the
cards. The game is littered with this type of small,
well-thought out touches, whether it be the audi-
ence members’ wide eyes in Impressive Recon-
struction (See Figure 4), the “Made in China” label
in It’s a Fake!, or that the same happy paleontolo-
gist sitting on a pile of bones in Priority is unhappy
on the same pile in Scooped! Many of the cards
take their inspiration from true events from the real
bone wars in cards like Too Much Tail, Public Feud,
and Head at Wrong End. The most charming addi-
tion is that each of the Event cards has a quote
from a paleontologist or other historical figure from
the time period. Darwin lauds works on dinosaurs,
Cope feuds with Marsh, and field crews are beset
by both natural elements and other field crews.
One tradition of other CCG’s that I wish the cre-
ators had incorporated is the listing of the source of
this “flavor text”. Bone Wars just lists the author.
The tagline for Bone Wars, The Ruthless
Game of Paleontology, is apt. That is, game play
centers often more on preventing the other players
from succeeding than trying to get yourself to win.
Around my table, rivalries cropped up between
players as they kept revising each other’s Dino-
saurs and stealing and restealing prestige. I should
point out that by the next game new rivalries
appeared, old ones were forgotten, and the largest
Figure 2. Stegosaurus Dinosaur card. Figure 3. Head Bone card.
argument of the first night of game play was
whether we should read all the cards first or be sur-
prised at what cards appeared in play. The players
around my table identified three main strategies to
win the game. A “quick and dirty” strategy in which
a Dinosaur is described as fast as possible but is
very susceptible to revision, a “slow but precise”
strategy in which a Dinosaur is described if it is
nearly complete and/or the Bone cards correspond
exactly to the Dinosaur, and a “revisionist” strategy
in which the player only revises other players’
Dinosaurs and cannot lose prestige through revi-
sion because they do not produce anything them-
selves. If this sounds at all like the practice of
paleontology, it is probably on purpose. The cre-
ators have managed to capture different aspects of
taxonomy, publication, and fieldwork in card form.
Many of the cards will sound familiar such as Wait
Until He’s Dead, Switching Labels, and Mining the
The game is not without it’s issues, but there
are only two that think bear mentioning. In Bone
Wars there are three Field Crew cards. These are
the only Event cards that remain in play and give
you an advantage while they remain in play. How-
ever, there are also three other Event cards that let
players steal Field Crew cards (Better Food, Better
Pay, and Cask of Whiskey). Often, by the time a
player plays a Field Crew another player has a
card that will take it from him or her. A player must
decide if they even want to play a Field Crew know-
ing it will likely come back to bite them. Field Crews
also have their own section in the instructions to
explain the special rules centered around these
three cards. Field Crews probably could have been
left out or made a larger part of the game to inte-
grate them better with the rest of the game. I would
prefer the latter; I always take my chances and
play the Field Crew cards.
The other issue is one about game play. The
instructions are quite short for a game of this type.
The entire set if rules can fit on the two sides of an
8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper. Terse instructions
are generally a good idea for card games and the
game has obviously been well play tested (the
credits list 17 play testers), but one more aspect
should be included. Many CCG’s have rules about
timing, that is, what order certain cards or effects
take affect if they happen at the about same time.
Multiple Event cards can be played at the same
time by different players, and it sometimes it has to
be decided what order they should take affect. At
my table, we decided to resolve the Events in the
order they were played from last to first. This
mechanic is used by many CCG’s and works quite
well. Players not familiar with this type of card
games might find it counter-intuitive. “By the book”
players may want to tap on the table or otherwise
show that they do not want to play any more cards
at a particular time.
Another aspect mentioned by a colleague of
mine is that Mary Anning should have been
included as one of the Paleontologist cards to
denote the contributions of women to paleontology.
I do not disagree, but she was unfortunately not
part of the American bone wars, which were at the
time an all boys club. However, many of the cards
show a female paleontologist doing such things as
discovering a Dinosaur Graveyard, going on a Lec-
ture Tour, and so on. Mary may be represented in
the game after all, if not specifically by name.
Bone Wars is mainly distributed though
Zygote Games’ website but is also sold at the Yale
Peabody Museum Store. The game has been sell-
ing for about a year after the creators hosted a
demo session at last year’s Dino Days. The game
has enjoyed brisk sales, and is one of the top sell-
ers in the card and board games category of the
Peabody Museum Store. It is also unusual in that it
is one of the few products stocked in both the adult
and children’s sections of the store. In the chil-
dren’s section it is placed higher up than many
products to be closer to the eye line of older chil-
dren. One of the take home messages from the
demo was that younger children can play the
game, but older children and adults were enjoying
the game on another level.
In a world where dinosaur movies, games,
and toys make millions of dollars off the efforts of
paleontologists, my main complaint has been the
quality of their work. If the entertainment industries
Figure 4. Impressive Reconstruction Event card.
ANDRES: Bone Wars
were going to profit from our work, at least they
could do a better job. Anyone who has picked up a
plastic bag of “dinosaurs” that had both a Dimetro-
don and a Wooly Mammoth in it probably has had
similar thoughts. Zygote Games is run by a hus-
band and wife team of a biologist and game
designer. There website sports a history lesson
behind the cards, a suggested reading list, and a
science blog. If all new games were created in sim-
ilar manner, there would be a lot better science
games on the market, and a lot better-designed
games in general. Zygote games is bringing similar
flare to its upcoming release, Parasites Unleashed,
in which the different disgusting and fascinating
aspects of parasite lifecycles are depicted in a sim-
ilar cartoon-like and humorous outlook that they
brought to Bone Wars. Bone Wars will not be the
last card game I ever buy, but it will be in the top of
the rotation in my game box.
As a final note, if you do decide to play the
game in the field, I would suggest packing the
cards in two regular playing card boxes. The box
Bone Wars is packaged in normal card stock and
has a tendency to dent and have its corners bend
in a pack. Special thanks for this review goes to
Matt Benoit and Uná Farrell, who were the other
players across the table at that first game.
Bone Wars is recommended for 2 to 4 players
for ages 10 and up, but is equally playable by older
children and adults.
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